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Fool for Love 

Heartless women and the men who worship them: a play by Neil LaBute

Wednesday, Sep 11 2002
Neil LaBute has made a name for himself by pushing emotional buttons, not an easy task in this worldly, unshockable age. Labeled as everything from a moralist to a misanthrope, the controversial director and playwright has held a mirror up to the darkest desires and shortcomings of humanity: The battle of the sexes took a few giant leaps backward with the movie In the Company of Men, a startling study of male chauvinism in which two corporate players maliciously plot to victimize a deaf woman; in the film Your Friends & Neighbors, meanwhile, modern relationships seem like little more than a way to inflict pain upon partners. Even LaBute's occasional foray into more mainstream work is hardly what you'd call typical Hollywood or Broadway fare: The bizarre black comedy Nurse Betty features a dazed and confused Renée Zellweger as a waitress who believes her soap-opera heartthrob is a long-lost lover. Because LaBute has such a diverse, sharp-edged oeuvre, some theater groups shy away from producing his plays, but the Aurora Theatre Company has stepped up to the challenge, presenting The Shape of Things, LaBute's modern retelling of Pygmalion.

The Shape of Things is trademark LaBute, if there is such a thing. Generally interpreted as a response to In the Company of Men, the Shape parable proves that LaBute is capable of conjuring female characters as heartless and morally depraved as his male creations. Evelyn, a manipulative art student, is every man's worst nightmare. She meets the hapless Adam (the biblical references here are none too subtle) and begins "improving" him once he's smitten. Suggesting that he cut his hair, lose some weight, try contact lenses -- and while he's at it, why not get a nose job? -- Evelyn literally gets under his skin. And her influence goes further. As his looks improve and he becomes more attractive to the opposite sex, Adam starts telling an occasional white lie and seduces a former roommate's girlfriend. There's a surprise ending that reveals Evelyn as more of a monster than many of LaBute's men (even if Adam's not too far behind).

In The Shape of Things, LaBute confronts the artist's, or shaper's, role in society -- and the critics who have raised questions about his work. (Adam tells Evelyn, "Anybody can be provocative. Or shocking .... It doesn't matter if you call it 'art' if you don't have anything to say.") Whether the larger themes of his allegory fly, LaBute's insights and observations capture those first thrilling moments of budding romance, when we're on our best behavior and willing to accommodate the other person's image of a perfect companion. These are experiences we can all relate to -- which may be why LaBute's artistic framing of them is so controversial, after all.

About The Author

Lisa Hom


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